Friday, April 19, 2024

Mad Magician, The (1954)

... aka: El mago asesino (The Murderous Magician)
... aka: Il mostro delle nebbie (The Monster of the Mist)
... aka: La máscara siniestra (The Sinister Mask)
... aka: Le tueur porte un masque (The Killer Wears a Mask)
... aka: Magier des Schreckens (Mage of Dread)

Directed by:
John Brahm

Due to the monumental success of the 3D release House of Wax (1953), which was the highest-grossing horror film of the entire decade (also one of the highest grossing horror films of all time when adjusted for inflation), this project made perfect sense. Another 3D horror film starring Vincent Price from the same producer (Bryan Foy) and writer (Crane Wilbur), and released the same month almost exactly a year apart? Money in the bank, right? The only big change was in directors, with John Brahm subbing for André De Toth, but that in itself was promising. Brahm had a good track record with genre films, having already made The Undying Monster (1942), The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945); all very solid efforts. Seems like this was destined to be another big hit and yet... it somehow wasn't. 

Despite a pretty extensive PR campaign, The Mad Magician pretty much tanked. Based on the box office numbers I was able to drum up for 1954, it didn't even break the top 100 by the end of the year. That's quite a fall from grace considering Wax was the fourth largest North American box office draw just a year before, selling a whopping 39+ million tickets.

There are many reasons this likely happened. For starters, the film simply isn't as good as Wax, reviews were poor and back then word got around. Second, there were a number of major 3D horror releases that beat this one to theaters, including the hit Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was released just two months earlier. The tipping point of audience disinterest in 3D seemed to occur right after Creature when Phantom of the Rue Morgue, a March release from the same studio behind Wax (Warner Bros.) fell well below box office expectations. Magician landed a month after that. 

Other factors that potentially could have contributed was this one being shot in black-and-white (as opposed to the color Wax) and the fact there were a number of notable horror, sci-fi and suspense films released this same year. Alfred Hitchcock had two big hits alone: Dial M for Murder (another 3D release) and Rear Window (the second most popular film of the year). 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Them!, The Naked Jungle and the aforementioned Creature were other high-performing films that audiences of the day apparently were more interested in.

Don Gallico (Price) has spent years coming up with showstopping magic tricks for other magicians. Now it's his time in the spotlight as "Gallico the Great." He puts together his own elaborate stage show that he hopes will wow audiences and eventually land him a lucrative gig on Broadway. Part of his act involves doing impersonations of other popular magicians (like a full prosthetic make-up job and curling his hair into little devil horns when he's imitating "The Great Rinaldi"), but the show mostly hinges on his one "prized shocker" of an illusion called "The Lady and the Buzzsaw." Though he's made it as fool proof as possible, there's still an outside chance for disaster. After all, it uses a REAL giant saw blade. He even bills it as "The most dangerous exhibition ever attempted."

Right before Gallico and his sweet / naïve assistant Karen Lee (the lovely Mary Murphy) can perform the trick, the curtain suddenly goes down and the show is canceled. Ross Ormond (Donald Randolph), who owns Illusion Inc., a company that makes tricks for magicians that Gallico works for, serves him with an injunction. Turns out that part of his contract stipulates that anything created by any of his employees is owned by him and cannot be used without his authorization. It doesn't even matter that Gallico made his contraption on his own time and using his own money, Ormond now has complete control over it and who uses it. He orders the saw be transported back to his workshop and then offers it to the REAL Great Rinaldi (John Emery - ROCKETSHIP X-M) to use in HIS show.

The greedy Ormond is using his leverage to advance the career of Rinaldi because he's part owner of his show and doesn't want any competition. Not only that, but Ormond has already stabbed Gallico in the back once already. Years earlier when he met the struggling aspiring magician working for peanuts in a carnival, he not only offered him a contract, he also stole his wife. Gallico's money-grubbing ex Claire (third-billed Eva Gabor, who's in just two scenes) decided to divorce him and marry Ormond instead because he had the means to provide the luxurious lifestyle she desired. After being hit with one too many blows, Gallico snaps, grabs Ormond, strangles him, punches him and then goes into a screaming fit ("Why don't ya laugh at me now? Go on, laugh! Laaaahh-yef!") as he decapitates him with the saw!

An expert sculptor and mask maker, Gallico crafts a very lifelike mask of Ormond, disposes of the body during a college bonfire and proceeds to impersonate him. He starts calling himself "Ward Jameson" and rents a room from (oops!) mystery novelist Alice Prentiss (Lenita Lane) and her husband Frank (Jay Novello), where he can come and go as he pleases and work on his "experiments." 

As he's trying to hide out and stay low key, various characters cause problems for him. Claire is now searching for her missing husband, and even attempts to seduce the same ex-husband she stabbed in the back to tide her over in the meantime. The Great Rinaldi is still snooping around and now wants dibs on Gallico's latest contraption, "The Crematorium." Karen happens to be dating Lt. Alan Bruce (Patrick O'Neal), who's put in charge of finding out what happened to Ormond and is employing a new (for the 19th century setting, that is!) policing method: fingerprinting suspects. And when Alice isn't writing books like "Murder Is a Must," she fancies herself an amateur sleuth and starts looking into Gallico herself. More murders follow.

Asking whether or not Price gives a fun performance is basically like asking if water is wet. Of course he does! This can even be seen as a dry run for his later The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Theater of Blood (1973), which also allowed the actor to don a succession of different disguises. His presence alone is enough to bump what is otherwise a 2 star / average movie up by half a point. That said, this is far from his best showing and probably the worst genre film he made in the 50s; "worst" being a relative term because the others are all quite good. Though the murders are almost entirely off-screen (bloodless and tame even for the time), the quirky side characters, sense of humor and production values at least partially make up for it.

After this failed at the box office, Price ventured away from the genre for a number of years until the likes of The Fly (1958) and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) put him back on top. His status as a genre icon was then solidified by his run of Roger Corman Poe films and a number of key titles (mostly British productions) from the late 60s through the 70s.

Corey Allen, who'd appear in Rebel Without a Cause the following year before becoming an Emmy-winning TV director, has a small uncredited role as Gus the stagehand. Lyle Talbot (Plan 9 from Outer Space) also has a small role as a program hawker at a Rinaldi show, as does Roy Engel as a detective and (supposedly) Conrad Brooks as an extra in the bonfire scene.

Obviously Columbia was in no big hurry to get this out to the masses as a home video release. It was one of the only Price genre films from the time to have never received a legit VHS release during the entire video era. In 2012, it finally made its DVD debut courtesy of Sony, which was followed by a Mill Creek release in 2015 and then a Blu-ray in 2017 from Twilight Time. The latter comes with 2D and 3D viewing options, a commentary track (with David Del Valle) and the 20-minute featurette Master of Fright: Conjuring the Mad Magician.

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